Make Good Bad Guys by Lev Butts

Characters are the soul of fiction. They are the first movers of story. Imagine any story you've ever read, then take out the characters. What you have left is essentially a lunatic's National Geographic article: a description of a fantastic landscape or a discussion of a particular group or species daily habits.

Without characters, The Hobbit, for instance, would read something like this:

Chapter 1: Hobbits live relatively peaceful lives, reside in modestly decorated holes in hills, and like to eat. Like a lot. They have seven meals a day, and do not like to be surpised by unexpected visitors.

Chapter 2: Trolls will eat anything and turn to stone in the sunlight.

Chapter 3: Elves are wise, and kind of pompous assholes.

Chapter 4: Goblins are just assholes.

Chapter 5: Caves are dark and scary, and sometimes people lose jewelry there.

Chapter 6: Wolves and Goblins are friends and often team up to terrorize villages, but giant eagles will sometimes put a stop to those shenanigans.

Chapter 7: Shape-shifters can, indeed, count.

Chapter 8: The woods are ugly, dark, and deep.

Chapter 9: Elves are pretty much pompous assholes wherever they live.

Chapter 10: Humans are generally trifling and gullible, but can also be quite generous.

Chapter 11: Dragons are really sleepy, and can count better than shape-shifters

Chapters 12: Dwarves live in mountains...

Chapter 13: ...and really, really like treasure.

Chapter 14: Humans really are a mixed bag. Thank Eru some of them can shoot.

Chapter 15: When I say dwarves like their treasure, I mean it. They like other people's treasure, too.

Chapter 16: Hobbits make good thieves when they are properly motivated.

Chapter 17: When five armies of various species fight, things get messy. Hobbits generally nap through it.

Chapter 18: Return trips are boring.

Chapter 19: Hobbits will sell all your shit if you vacation too long.

The woods are ugly, dark, and deep.
And I have promises to keep,
So bye.
Clearly then, character is the single most important part of any story. So how do we make good ones? "Good guys" are generally easier to create. We mainly look at ourselves in the mirror, nip and tuck our unsightly flaws, and write down what we see.

This is why so may of the best protagonists appeal to us: they are glorified versions of ourselves. No, we don't make them perfect; we know we, ourselves, are flawed, so imbue our heroes with a few of those flaws or make them relatable: Bilbo Baggins is kind of a passively shy, regular guy until he gets dragged into an adventure and learns he is really brave underneath. Nick Carraway is really just a nobody who is star-struck by rich people until he realizes they are a pretty self-centered lot. Ishmael is a bored twenty-something with no direction looking for adventure.

The point here is that in order to make compelling heroes, you need only give them a character flaw that they must overcome in order to grow into the hero we all know they really are. They are us, after all, and no one really thinks of themselves as the bad guy.

Shut up, Jesse.
Here's the problem: If characters are the most important aspect of fiction, the bad guy is just as important as the good guy. More important in many ways. You don't need nice characters to make a story. Thanks to the concept of anti-heroes, you can have protagonists who are complete and utter assholes.

Tolkien wrote a whole book about them.
Bad guys are a little harder for most of us to do, though. We have a tendency to paint evil in big, broad, mustache twirling strokes.

Indeed so many of our bad guys are just variations of this guy:

Ties young girls to the train tracks.
We have the Western bad guy:

Ties young girls to the train tracks

Fantasy bad guy:
Ties elves to the train tracks

Space bad guy:

Ties Jedi and Rebels to the train tracks

We even have History bad guy:

Ties Jews to the train tracks

But for the most part, these are all guys who are so clearly evil, that they may as well be the same person. And ultimately, with the exception of the last two, they are. Don't believe me? Ask yourself the following questions: What's the name of the impressively mustachioed fellow tying the girl to the tracks? Who's the cowboy? Is the fantasy guy Morgoth, Sauron, The Black Lieutenant, or Shai'tan? Most of us don't know. Because these villains are so interchangeably similar, it doesn't matter. We just need to know they're baddies, and that the goodies are going to defeat them.

So why are the other two different?

Because to a great degree, we can see ourselves in them. Darth Vader is intriguing to us because, like a good hero, he is flawed. We understand what he wants: He wants order, he wants to protect his family, he wants to make the galaxy safe. That he has to destroy all impediments to this in his quest is unfortunate (especially since the impediments are our well-meaning heroes), but unavoidable. He is evil, not by nature, but by circumstance. He cannot balance his lofty goals with fair action. He believes, like many of us (like all of us from time to time, if we're really being honest) that our lofty ends justify the horrible means we have to use to attain them.

So what about Hitler? Surely we generally don't see ourselves in him. Well, we do, but in a way that is perhaps way more disturbing for us. Darth Vader (or Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter or Breaking Bad's Walter White) represents our own ideals taken to the extreme excluding all other moral concerns. He represents what we can do if we myopically focus only on our own initailly laudable goals and desires.

We cannot say the same for Hitler (or Charles Manson or Norman Bates), though. The argument that Hitler let the laudable goal of fixing Germany get out of control falls kind of flat when you consider that there was never a time in his career when his solution to the problem was anything short of skull-kissing crazy. Why, then, are we so fascinated with him? Because even he, even Hitler, had a tee-tiny spark of humanity in him. He loved dogs and children. He was a vegetarian. He was an artist.

Though not the best boyfriend, I guess.

We are fascinated by bad guys like Hitler because unlike Darth Vader's type of bad guy, these guys didn't let their virtues become so powerful that they became evil. These bad guys became evil in spite of their humanity, not because of it. And that is, in many ways, a far more frightening concept.

These two types of bad guys are far more intriguing to us because they do essentially the same thing as the fascinating good guys do: They reflect on some level aspects of ourselves. Good heroes reflect an idealized version of ourselves; great heroes reflect that but also keep some amount of our flaws. Good villains reflect flawed versions of ourselves, great villains do that but also retain some spark of humanity or pathos within them that makes their evil tragic instead of completely terrifying.

All this is a long-winded way of saying if you want to make charismatic, believable, and unforgettable villains, you have to make them at least somewhat sympathetic. You have to understand that they are the heroes of  their own stories. And you have to care about them just as much as you care about the heroes.

P.S. If you think it is impossible to make Hitler a sympathetic villain without somehow excusing the horrors he created, I urge you to read Unto the Beast by Richard Monaco. It truly is a perfect example of what I've been talking about here.

Though you might wait a bit until Venture Press re-releases it 
and Monaco can make a little cash from it.


glitter noir said…
Powerful post, Lev. The best actors, like the best authors, find even the tiniest human sparks in their bad-assed characters and keep those sparks aglow in our minds.
Bill Kirton said…
Couldn't agree more, Lev. The whole notion of 'bad' and 'good' can seem arbitrary according to context and nowadays, with Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Assad, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnston, Brexit and the appalling things humans are doing to one another escalating, it really seems that we need to redefine them to accommodate an entirely different morality.
Love that Hobbit plot breakdown! But I actually find villains much easier to create and write than the good guys - maybe because the villain always has a strong motivation (kill all the good guys, blow up the entire world, etc.) whereas the good guys are often flawed to start with and don't really know who or what they're fighting for until it's too late.

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